Natalia Martinez (Argentina) and Camilo Rada (Chile) have made a long-awaited second ascent of the highest point of Monte Sarmiento in the Chilean sector of Tierra del Fuego. It was also the mountain's first winter ascent.
Sarmiento rises in splendid isolation on its own peninsula to two surreal and heavily sculptured snow/ice summits; the east (2,235m) and north-west (2,210m) tops. It is arguably the most spectacular peak in Tierra del Fuego and, as noted by Charles Darwin, the region's "most sublime spectacle".
After a history of attempts, which has now spanned more than 140 years, the east and highest top had until recently been reached only once; in 1956 by legendary Italian alpinists Clemente Maffei and Carlo Mauri (a climbing partner of Walter Bonatti), in a bold and committing alpine-style push up the south ridge.
The Italian expedition had inspected the north face but found it too dangerous from icefall in the austral summer months. However, a winter attempt would largely eliminate this risk. Martinez and Rada, both extremely experienced in dealing with the harsh Patagonian and Tierra del Fuego weather, were part of a larger expedition that had not only mountaineering, but also scientific and exploration aims.
Fortunately, the weather gods smiled, giving a brief window of fine calm conditions. The two were quickly able to establish a high camp at just over 1,200m. From there, Martinez and Rada ascended glacier slopes to reach the 400m headwall leading to the east summit. They climbed this directly in eight 55m pitches (generally 60-ca90°, but with a crux bergschrund giving five metres of 110°, which they aided), then a 20-40° snow field, to reach the highest point.
The route was graded D+ and named Suerte de Sarmiento. They abseiled the line from snow stakes, ice screws and Abalakovs, and returned to camp in zero visibility after a 30-hour round trip. This is perhaps the third major first winter ascent for Rada, a geophysicist and glaciologist, the preceding two being San Lorenzo (3,706m) - the second highest mountain in Patagonia - and Paine Grande (3,050m) - the highest in the Torres del Paine group.
After the 1956 ascent attention turned to the unclimbed northwest top, still a magnificent prize, and a number of attempts were made. It finally fell to five members of the Lecco Spiders in 1986. These Italians climbed the north-east face to the summit (south-east) ridge, above the col separating the two summits.
After a few other attempts, in 1995 Stephen Venables joined a star-studded cast that included Americans Jim Wickwire, John Roskelly and Charlie Porter, and Australian Tim Macartney-Snape in an attempt to reach the main top from the west. Weather and accidents prevented this but in a last ditch effort Macartney-Snape, Roskelly and Venables managed to climb the north-west top via a new route up the south-west face.
In 2010 Germans Ralf Gantzhorn, Robert Jasper and Jorn Heller tried the north ridge of the north-west top. Forced off the line 80m below the top, they downclimbed 150m on the north-east face, traversed across it and climbed a little left of the 1986 Italian Route to reach the south-east ridge, finishing up this to the north-west top.